Hard Truths:  Uncovering the Deep Structure of Schooling


by Barbara Benham Tye

Dr. Tye devotes most of this book to identifying elements of what she terms the “deep structure” of schooling.  By this, she means the cultural aspects of schooling in America that she argues are impossible to change for any extended period of time unless there are societal changes in the expectations and role of schools.  She includes in these elements such things as the school year, length of the school day, the custodial function of schools, the role of the schools in sorting students, protection of privileged communities to offer superior educational opportunities, the “coverage” aspect of curriculum, etc.  Changes in these areas tend to start reverting to the cultural norm almost immediately, and are generally almost undetectable in five years, and gone without a trace in ten.

As the author freely notes, much of this point has been made by other authors.  For those unfamiliar with this idea, this book is a good summary, with citations to other sources. 

I found most interesting the last chapter on the types of change she sees as possible, and the method for achieving change.  First, she argues that “school systems” are not the proper focus for change.  The administrative hierarchy of school systems is basically bureaucratic, while the schools are “loosley coupled”, both to that hierarchy and internally.  Thus, even if it were possible to implement “change programs” effectively in a bureaucracy (an idea that has lost much credibility in the business world in recent years), it has not and cannot work.

At the school level, she again cautions against taking on the “deep structure” elements, suggesting as an alternative a focus on process and substantive goals that do not impinge on the deep structure.  She asserts that major improvement in student learning and experience of schooling, teacher morale, and public support are possible from addressing other areas.  The testimony of the great schools that exist in significant numbers across the country supports her. 

Dr. Tye suggests that a broad, on-going, and thoughtful conversation among teachers, students, parents, administrators, board members and other members of the community must surround any change efforts.  She notes that successful efforts have focused on a very few goals and have adopted generous timelines for change.  Further, she notes that where such efforts end up often differs from what might have originally been contemplated.  She also suggests that such efforts start with identification of the school’s strengths, then build on those.  (See Now, Discover Your Strengths for the personal of this approach.)  Note how this analysis supports the view of school improvement efforts as “wicked problems.”

According to the author, feasible areas for change include process and substantive goals.  I would add capacity goals.  She identifies process goals as those addressed to the manner in which the faculty and leadership in a school work together.  As examples, she suggests that a school might focus on problem solving, open communication, conflict resolution, shared decision making, goal setting, or shared leadership.  Each of these would require the development of new skills, behaviors, patterns of interaction, and mechanisms by the faculty and leadership.

She also thinks “substantive change” is possible, although her focus here does not seem to be much on student learning.  She lists improved connections with the community, full-service social services through cooperation with other agencies, development of a “teacher-advisor” program, and perhaps some curriculum efforts (within state frameworks) as possibilities.  She mentioned one school that implemented and kept a “no fail” grading system where students would not be issued a grade until they had achieved at least a “C”.  Many of her examples deal more with the high school level than lower grades.

There is a role for administrators in Dr. Tye’s view:  supporting and protecting school-level efforts to improve.  She does not go into much detail here, but allow me. 

First, note:  not “dictating”, “training”,  “rolling out”, “enforcing”, etc., etc., etc.  Leadership must come from the schools.  Central office personnel (and school boards), can help create a climate of acceptance for such efforts, including their tentativeness, mutations during implementation, lack of 100% support by all parties, and the general messiness of the process.  (In other words, board, or superintendents, who pick at every last effort that doesn’t look just as they expect will kill the efforts altogether!) 

Administrative leadership and school boards can also support such change through hiring, professional development programs, providing and protecting time, promoting supportive principals, employing technology strategically (to improve the networking and communication efforts of teachers, for example).  I would suggest they can also establish access to leaders in areas such as cognitive psychology, develop internal process and substantive experts for the support of schools, etc.

Finally, I would suggest one area in addition to process and substance:  capacity.  Specifically, I am thinking of the capacity of teachers and principals to begin, wrestle with, and bring change efforts to fruition.  Optimism, with its inherent support for action is one obvious area.  Tools to make the process more efficient (mind mapping or dialog mapping, for example) are another productive area for central office support.  Central support also makes sense for such things as school climate or culture surveys, cooperative test development, and an array of training opportunities for selection by teachers, teacher teams, and even entire faculties.  Finally, the central administration ca assist in the development of more functional, supportive school cultures through appropriate mechanisms, processes, and behavior modeling.

Ultimately, this book supports cautions optimism.  Hear, hear!